Corpus Christi

Corpus Christi is a film for our times

Poland’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar is a deeply-felt exploration of religion with a transfixing central performance.

Parasite may have shaken the film world when it won big at the Academy Awards. Still, long before the category was finalized, it was pegged as the easy favourite for Best International Feature Film. The momentum was steadily growing after the film won the Palme D’Or at Cannes. Once its distribution company, Neon, decided to put all of its awards show marketing in the Parasite basket, no one else stood a chance. Of course, Parasite‘s rise to the top does not mean the other films in the category weren’t good; they just never had a chance. Corpus Christi was among the nominations doomed to lose to Parasite.

Based on a true story, the Polish film tells the tale of Daniel, a recently released prisoner who is mistaken for a priest, a vocation he happily takes on. While serving in juvenile detention for second-degree murder, Daniel had experienced a profound spiritual awakening and yearned for the priesthood once released — only to be told his crimes would prevent him from ever pursuing a life in the church. It’s as if fate itself gifts him with a parish, and he seizes the opportunity entirely.

The emotional and spiritual energy of the film rests heavily on the shoulders of Bartosz Bielenia, an actor at the dawn of his career. His eyes, sunken, grey and slightly off-centre, draw you in. At first glance, he seems as though he is of the living dead and, in a way, he is. The strength of his spiritual love, though, awakens a bright light that must have been lying dormant. His eyes come alive and his smile radiates. In spite of his almost skeletal stature and relative youth, it’s obvious why a town readily believes his spiritual calling.

As Corpus Christi progresses, the themes of forgiveness and redemption come into clear focus. Beyond the obvious moral grey zone that Daniel finds himself in, the town bathes in mourning over the loss of a dozen young people in a car accident. They blame the driver of the other car for drinking and driving, even though his toxicology report came back clean. While publically, they put on a big performance of healing and prayer, behind closed doors the surviving parents terrorize the man’s widow. The film shows the ways that cycles of violence perpetuate and how redemption rarely works in practice because the obstacles of society prevent real spiritual growth. 

Despite the rather sombre subject, the film has a lot of comedy as well. Daniel, as a character, may embrace his role as an accidental priest, but he is also profoundly aware of the dark irony of it. Rather than hide behind a mask of what he thinks a priest should be, he maintains his personality and quirks, including a love of smokes and booze. He does not attempt to hide these aspects of his character, as well as his dark sense of humour, which serves only to ingratiate him more into the town. Being fully himself and fully human allows, however briefly, the village to return to the Church. 

At its heart, Corpus Christi demonstrates how the values of religion have long lost touch with the spiritual needs of the average person. As established religions become more powerful, the gap between citizens and elites grow. Even in a time of enormous loss, the higher-ups seem utterly incapable of stepping in or stepping up to offer any real council or solace. It takes an ordinary man who has experienced loss and hardship to translate lessons or scripture, but he is officially barred from doing so.

Corpus Christi‘s grey-green colour scheme does suit the action but also serves to discount the film’s originality. Without a particularly expressive filmmaking style, the film lacks a unique mark. The naturalist approach lacks poetry and nuance, and the film’s appeal has to rest more deeply on the performances and script than on other filmmaking elements. The decayed look of everything has become a bit of a trope in “serious” minded cinema and is rarely done well. 

Even for those uninterested in religion, Corpus Christi offers a new perspective on criminality and forgiveness. It is deeply felt and engaged with the darkest moments of all of our lives. In particular, the way the film tackles rage in a cruel and unfair world gives a sliver of hope that feels authentically moving and engaged with moving forward rather than wallowing in the past. For my money, it’s not as good as Parasite but few films last year were. Corpus Christi is still one of the better films nominated at the Oscars this past year, and well worth your time. ■

Corpus Christi opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Feb. 28. Watch the trailer below.

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